Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Where I'm Reading From



Unless you are the late John Leonard, the symphony-of-words book reviewer whose essays and reviews on culture and the life of the mind appeared in literally every major publication in the universe, your collection of reviews assembled in a book will probably gather dust in the remainder bin.  (To find such a bin, you would first need to find a bricks and mortar book store).  Thankfully, critic, novelist, translator and essayist Tim Parks opted to address a particular theme in his latest book, Where I’m Reading From:  The Changing World of Books (The New York Review of Books, 2015) rather than collect his voluminous, challenging, thoughtful reviews from the pages of the NYRB.  And the tome could not have arrived at a better time, seeing that a number of articles have appeared in a variety of publications recently bemoaning the loss of interest in long form journalism and essays.  Everything now must be boiled down to a Twitter post—as few characters as possible with points added for a clever picture or meme.

In his own four movement symphony, Parks breaks down the book world as it has come to be in the second decade of the century.  He begins, aptly enough, with an examination of the world around the book, particularly, how narrative speaks to the human condition.  For one, in this brave new world with all its blogs and Tweets and fifty shades of grey, will anyone even pay to read what has been written with urgency and importance?  More to the point, will writers still write if they are not paid, because that is exactly what’s happening at the sites of news aggregators.  A writer these days should be honored that an essay appears on the Huffington Post.  Payment?  You must be joking.  But you cannot eat or clothe yourself when you are forced to give away your work.  Worse, it would seem that the narcissistic promotion involved in posting some self-proclaimed, brilliant thought makes everyone a writer.  Singlehandedly, the digital age has devalued the well written essay, the long form piece, the wise novel, the thoughtful critical review written by someone who has studied the art and recognizes its place in the culture.

Parks observes that there is a growing gap between academia and the common reader.  Academics write for a selective audience of a few people, couching their ideas in obtuse and needlessly jargonistic lingo.  Publishing for them is a means to an end:  secure a job and hopefully, tenure.  It does not matter how many of their books are sold or if anyone outside of the rarified circles in which they roam actually reads their work.  The writer on the street creates because he or she wants readers.  And now, more than ever, the writer must love the work because most often, there is very little money to be made from it.  In our culture, information is shared freely, and with the exception of an occasional pay wall or subscriber-only access, most readers find what they need on the web and want it in as brief a dose as possible.  He concludes that “What seems doomed to disappear, or at least to risk neglect, is the kind of work that revels in the subtle nuances of its own language and literary culture, the kind of writing that can savage or celebrate the way this or that linguistic group really lives.”  Of course, Parks is a translator of literature as well as a reviewer and practitioner of the literary arts so he is deeply sensitive to how the word travels through languages and linguistic rhythms around the globe.  And he is correct:  we have no patience for the intricate story, the deeper essay.  We have too many other things to do like update our Facebook status.

One issue within this discussion of readers that Parks addresses is the homogenization of languages—namely, English is becoming the world’s voice.  He quotes David Crystal’s book, Language Death (Cambridge University Press, 2002) that “by 2100 between 50 and 90 percent of the world’s languages will have disappeared.”  So we are not just losing readers and writers; the entire paradigm of language and ideas is changing.  Most people become readers because they have been encouraged to do so as children.  The emphasis on books and writing is modeled by parents and those who have books in the home and actively see their parents engaged with a text are more likely to become readers themselves.  Yet, how many parents are actually encouraging this deeper engagement with a novel or book of essays?  Like their children, given a free moment most people focus on their phones, reading texts and Tweets and studying pictures, including the inane selfies.  If it is true, as David Shields says in quoting Montaigne that “Every man contains within himself the entire human condition,” the kid who nearly ran into me in the mall while frantically tapping on his phone demonstrates a bleak and distracted snapshot of the human condition.

Most days it seems that our culture has descended into a morass of gossip and irrelevancy.  Why is Donald Trump getting so much publicity?  Well, he is a blowhard who will say anything and insult anyone to keep his ridiculous hair and blustery face front and center in the media storm, and guess what?  It works.  CNN cannot get enough of his antics giving him a nightly forum to spout his ignorance.  And America loves it.  We want the reality show.  We want to elect him president.  The press conferences, state of the union addresses, the inaugurations, all will be vastly more interesting because the whole country cannot wait to see what Trump says next.  But there is no depth there.  He is as insubstantial as his wispy comb-over.  He trivializes American politics and American culture.  He insults hardworking immigrants and women.  However, he is a symptom of a greater problem, a product of our own drunken narcissism, the cult of us.  With his wealth he can buy a seat at the grown-ups’ table and run his mouth.  Gone are the days when we looked for something deeper.  America never was a country that put philosophers on television every night.  The closest we came to that was William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, and Norman Mailer.  They had more meat on their intellectual bones than Trump, but if we look closely, we can see the resemblance and the lineage.  Discourse in America is screaming heads.  It is not a discussion; it is a verbal assault.

Parks relates these ideas to the “chloroformed sanctuary,” the world of the academics who are more interested in performing research tricks for a few of their peers than teaching students to be deep readers and thinkers.  They kill everything they touch, including the love of literature and inquiry, he tells us.  So it is no wonder that people have lost interest in sustained narratives, long form essays, or a simple book review.  If no one fosters that need to read or emphasizes the importance of thought and critical analysis—not parents, not teachers, not anyone—why would there be a culture of reading?

The last third of the book involves Parks’ thoughts on translation where he presents many astute observations about how different novels and texts translate, or do not translate, across cultures.  Two examples show us the irony of our world today.  He talks about Giacomo Leopardi’s great work, Zibaldone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015), and how, if he were writing today, the entire work would probably be broken up into a blog.  On its own, who would pick up a 2,600-page book of philosophy, history, theology, and literature.  We would need it parceled out in 500-word blog posts to garner a smidgen of interest from internet-surfing readers.  Even then, its lasting impact on our culture might be minimal at best.  He writes that he “translated Machiavelli’s The Prince during the Iraq War.  States invading distant foreign countries with authoritarian governments, Machiavelli warned, should think twice about disbanding the army and bureaucracy that opposed them, since these institutions may offer the best opportunity of maintaining law and order after the war is over.”  Obviously, those in power did not read their Machiavelli.

There is great wisdom and insight embedded in all literature, but if we are not readers, it’s all just blowing sand in the dust storm.  While we frantically tap out our Tweets and texts, and pose ourselves with selfie stick extended for that killer shot at the mall, our sagging intellects become ever more flaccid and impotent.  Tim Parks makes the case that the world of books has been warped into something very different in the social media age, the digital me-revolution.  He sounds the alarm and bears witness to the fall while the pages, like those chased by the figures on his book’s cover, blow away into the gusting wind of our own ignorance.  The world is indeed changing, and not for the better.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Saint Mazie



I have written about, and always been a fan of, Joseph Mitchell of The New Yorker.  Now a new book takes a real character from Mitchell’s writing and develops a fictionalized life for her.  That character is Mazie Phillips, chief proprietress of the Venice movie theater in the Bowery in lower Manhattan and the novel is called Saint Mazie (Grand Central Publishing, 2015) by Jami Attenberg.  Mitchell is known for often bending the rules of nonfiction:  compositing characters, condensing time lines, and even injecting a fictionalized version of himself into his work.  However, Mazie Phillips was real, and she is an intriguing and complex character both in Mitchell’s work and in the novel.

First, some true-to-life Mazie is in order.  Mitchell calls her “A bossy, yellow-haired blonde” in his piece published on the pages of the magazine in 1940.  She fled her hometown of Boston and the difficult life she had there accompanied by one sister to go and live in New York with yet another sister and her husband.  It is the husband, Louis, who owns the theater.  To earn her keep, she goes to work in the ticket booth, the cage, as a teenager and for years she is an institution in the neighborhood, helping down-on-their-luck drunks through prohibition, the Great Depression, and two world wars.  Mitchell captures the taste and heft of those days, as he was most famous for doing in all of his pieces for the magazine.  The theater is open every day from eight in the morning until midnight.  Mazie works the cage while the very small staff work the house, cleaning and polishing the old theater to accommodate the bums and dreamers who frequent the showings.  For a dime, patrons can see two movies, a newsreel, a cartoon selection, a short, and a serial episode.  The place was warm and dry, and often, if a bum didn’t have the price of admission, Mazie would let him in anyhow.  She also was free with her change, handing out nickels, dimes and quarters to those in need of a cup of coffee or a sandwich.  Step out of line meant incurring the wrath of Mazie, and she had no qualms about marching into the theater in the middle of a show to escort some miscreant out to the street, berating him all the while.

Over the years, she develops relationships with a local order of Catholic nuns who patrol the streets of the Bowery looking to aid and assist the downtrodden.  She also knows all the local merchants, and she frequents them to share gossip and stories.  She also knows the places that serve alcohol during those dry days of prohibition.  Mitchell is so good at drawing characters in his writing.  He is at heart a storyteller, so his essays burst with color and character, and his story of Mazie is a classic in his oeuvre.

Jami Attenberg builds on Mitchell’s work to present a unique and full novel, fleshing out the characters that The New Yorker piece only mentions in passing.  She also utilizes a particular narrative technique similar to an oral history.  I was reminded most often when reading her writing of Studs Terkel and his oral histories.  She eschews the standard narrative for passages in Mazie’s unpublished autobiography and diaries, as well as transcribed interviews with key characters in her life and times.  By piecing together clues from each person’s account of the story, a full picture emerges that in the end is both sad and complete, an entire history of a time and place long crumbled into the dust of years.  As she is in Mitchell’s piece, Mazie is a strong and memorable character.  Attenberg’s work only deepens Mitchell’s because it focuses on her life behind the public face, bringing into the character the details the experiences that made Mazie the truly memorable person she was.

What is truly successful about the novel is that we get to see those other characters that walk the fringes of Mitchell’s story.  The Catholic nuns, for example, are given names and character, and we see the unlikely friendship between the Jewish Mazie and the nun called Sister Tee develop into grudging respect and intimacy.  It is a poor, drug-addicted mother who brings them together in the first place so that they can save the lives of her two children.  Unfortunately, only one can be saved while the other is lost in the system.  There is a good ending to the story, however, later in the novel.

Jami Attenberg captures the tone and environment of the Bowery in her novel.  The characters are sepia-toned and full of life, like a lyrical history that takes the reader beyond facts and statistics.  Like Mitchell, she has a gift of establishing true and memorable characters.  Mazie, of course, is a force to be reckoned with as she is in the source material from the magazine.  For those interested in Mitchell’s profiles, or who love character-driven stories, Saint Mazie is an excellent read and a beautiful story.  The author pays homage to Joseph Mitchell, storyteller of 20th century New York and deepens the tale of Mazie Phillips, queen of the Bowery, rescuer of the fallen.

Note:  For those interested in reading a complete collection of Joseph Mitchell’s writing for The New Yorker, including Mazie’s story, check out Up In The Old Hotel (Vintage, 1993).


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Do No Harm



Quick:  what do Michael Crichton, Saint Luke, Anton Chekhov, Copernicus, Ethan Canin, William Carlos Williams, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Carl Jung and Rabelais all have in common?  None of them are women?  Okay, throw in Tess Gerritsen, Alison Sinclair and Alice Weaver Flaherty.  They are doctors and writers.  What is it about the medical profession that along with the fragile art of healing comes the ability to tell a story?  Is it because the illness of the patient is steeped in narrative?  Is it that one cannot begin to heal what ails a patient until he or she understands that unique backstory?

To that list of physician-writers must be added British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh.  His recently published memoir, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015) is an insightful and poetic look inside the human mind.  It is, at the same time, technical but accessible, brilliant and beautiful.  We follow the surgeon’s microscope into the patient’s brain in the opening pages:  “I am looking directly into the centre of the brain,” he writes, “a secret and mysterious area where all the most vital functions that keep us conscious and alive are to be found.  Above me, like the great arches of a cathedral roof, are the deep veins of the brain—the Internal Cerebral Veins and beyond them the basal veins of Rosenthal and then in the midline the Great Vein of Galen, dark blue and glittering in the light of the microscope.  This is the anatomy that inspires awe in neurosurgeons.”  It inspires awe in readers as well.

The human brain, of course, has its own disturbing poetry.  Marsh tells us of the “angor animi—the anguish of the soul—the feeling that some people have, when they are having a heart attack, that they are about to die.”  The same feeling haunts those who face the surgeon’s scalpel as it slices through the brain.  Most of the pathologies that Marsh confronts are cancerous, and he names each chapter after a particular tumor type or affliction.  These are stories about life and the living hidden in the grey gelatinous structures of synapse and dopamine.  It is a brilliant ride, like venturing into space at light speed through the streaking light of the stars.

In many ways, Marsh critically examines his own arrogance.  He admits mistakes and blunders, patients he has ruined, left paralyzed, incapacitated, brain dead.  Still, here in the 21st century, surgery on the brain is an inexact science, which is the reason that Marsh operates on so many patients using only local anesthesia.  The brain itself does not feel pain.  Pain signals must resonate in the brain as they are felt in the body and therefore, all the nerve fibers spread throughout the body are connected back to the brain.  A physician may heal himself, but a brain cannot feel itself.  When the patient’s skull is opened while he or she is awake, Marsh and his surgical team can ask questions and elicit responses from him or her as different areas of the brain are touched and explored.  He will know immediately if something has gone wrong.  However, it is probably something most people would not want:  to be awake during brain surgery.

Throughout, Marsh does a lot of shouting at people.  He shouts in surgery to make himself heard over the controlled roar of the machinery.  He shouts at other people who annoy him, even once saying, as he is shouting, that he feels like a “pompous fool.”  He does not shout when he must deliver bad news, and this book is threaded through with these tragic scenes.  He does not shy away from describing the moments.  For instance:  “I left them in the little room, their knees squeezed together as the four of them sat on the small sofa and wondered, yet again, as I walked away down the dark hospital corridor, at the way we cling so tightly to life and how there would be so much less suffering if we did not.  Life without hope is hopelessly difficult but at the end hope can so easily make fools of us all.”

Perhaps what makes Marsh such a top surgeon in the United Kingdom is not just his skill in the surgical suite.  He has been touched by brain disease in his own family.  He must witness his son’s medical intervention and recovery.  The good doctor, himself, suffers a broken leg and nearly loses his eyesight.  So when he faces the loved ones of others, he must strike a delicate balance.  He has a duty to his patients from which he cannot shrink.  “Surgeons must always tell the truth but rarely, if ever, deprive patients of all hope.  It can be very difficult to find the balance between optimism and realism.”

In dealing with death and the end of consciousness every day, Marsh does not escape thoughts of his own end.  “Will I be so brave and dignified when my time comes?” he asks himself.  He walks out to his car in a lonely parking lot.  “The snow was still falling and I thought yet again of how I hate hospitals.”  He must remain detached and professional with his patients because if he does not, he risks being overwhelmed by the power of emotion and the tragedy of their plights.  His job is to bear witness, even if he is impotent to bring the patient back.  “I must hope that I live my life now in such a way that…I will be able to die without regret.”  He remembers his mother on her death bed saying, “It’s been a wonderful life.  We have said everything there is to say.”  We should all be so lucky.

Marsh believes that it is unlikely we have souls, or that we continue to exist after the brain is dead.  What we know as consciousness ends when the brain depletes its oxygen supply and is destroyed.  “Our sense of self, our feelings and our thoughts, our love for others, our hopes and ambitions, our hates and fears all die when our brains die.”  I do not want to believe this, nor do I want to agree with him, but the passage stopped me in my reading and I found myself staring off into the shadows of a hot summer night immersed in silence and lost in contemplation.  “There are one hundred billion nerve cells in our brains,” he goes on.  “Does each one have a fragment of consciousness within it?”  That is what makes this book so relatable and moving for the non-scientist:  Marsh asks the questions we want to ask.  In his musings and ruminations, he is not the superior surgeon with the highly trained surgical skill set.  He is just a human being questioning the mystery of existence.

This is a beautiful book, a life-affirming, human story of a man whose life intersects with so many others in the frailty of disease and the search for healing.  Henry Marsh is a philosopher at heart, the human embodiment of a deep and feeling intellect composed of those millions of nerve fibers.  In an age where doctors seem more worried about keeping drug companies happy and charging insurance companies for another round of tests rather than healing the patient, Marsh tries to live out the oath to do no harm.  But what we see in this book is that sometimes, despite the heroic efforts of the surgeon, the patient is harmed.  That is the cost of business in medicine, especially in neurosurgery.  Some patients cannot be made better.  In this book, we see the frustrations, the disappointments, the tragedies faced by this doctor, as well as the triumphs, the miracles, the resilience of the human body fighting to stay alive.  It is a rich and riveting story, one I could not stop reading and which left me thinking long after I finished the final chapter.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Philemon's Problem



Many years ago, I was assigned to read James Tunstead Burtchaell’s book, Philemon’s Problem:  The Daily Dilemma of the Christian, for my high school senior religion class.  Recently, I found my copy of the slim volume with my name and phone number on the front cover buried at the back of a shelf.  Sadly, that name and number were the only marks in the text.  I never read the book most likely, or if I did, I found little to take note of or highlight.  This does not surprise me; in those days, the way to make sure I did not read a particular book was to make it a class assignment.  I wanted to read what I wanted to read, not what some teacher demanded of me to read.  And like many of my assigned readings from that time in my life, I usually discovered their importance when I had to teach them to a new crop of students in my own classroom years later.  Since I am writing a paper about Paul’s letter to Philemon, one of the shortest letters from that section of the New Testament and one that most biblical scholars refer to as a postcard from Paul rather than a full blown letter, I decided it was time to complete my homework thirty-three years after it was assigned.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the author to see what had transpired in his life since he published the book.  In a copyrighted article from the National Catholic Reporter datelined December 6, 1991, Burtchaell, a member of the Congregation of Holy Cross (C.S.C.) and a tenured faculty member at the University of Notre Dame, was said to be facing disciplinary action after “he had engaged in sexual misconduct while counseling male students.”  A second article from BishopAccountability.org from 2003 stated that “Burtchaell has lived for the past several years in a Holy Cross priests' residence in Phoenix.  Burtchaell does not have priestly faculties to celebrate Mass or otherwise perform priestly duties in the Diocese of Phoenix, according to a spokesman for that diocese.”  He has also had his priestly duties revoked in the Catholic Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana as well.

This cast a shadow, most definitely, over his scholarship, but I decided to examine the book for its theological importance rather than considering the author who remains a priest today at 81 and who, in 2010, celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his ordination.  It is tragic that he chose to engage in conduct so disgraceful that it ended his academic career, but he is definitely not the first such case to come to light in recent years.


The other important piece of news regarding the book is that Burtchaell updated and expanded his study in an edition published in 1998 by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan entitled Philemon’s Problem:  A Theology of Grace.  This time, I read the new edition in its 334-page entirety.  Burtchaell makes a number of key points that seem relevant today, especially in light of the racial tension in this country over police shootings of people of color and the need for human rights for all people since at its heart, the story of Philemon and his slave, Onesimus, is about how we treat people and how we address the issue of slavery’s corrupt assault on the sanctity of the human being.

First, some background:  Paul writes the letter from prison in Rome sometime around 63 CE.  Onesimus, whose name means “useful” or “beneficial,” has run away from his master, Philemon, after possibly committing a theft and has sought out Paul to assist him with his ministry while he is in prison.  Paul had converted the former slave to Christianity, and now he wishes to send Onesimus back to Philemon not to be a slave but as a Christian brother and equal to the former master.  Paul calls him “a brother, beloved especially to me.”  If indeed Onesimus is guilty of the theft, Paul asks that the debt be charged to Paul, himself, and that the slate be wiped clean for the former slave within the Christian community.  This is a bold and unusual request for the time.

Burtchaell’s book examines the case as presented in the letter and develops the lessons learned there into his theology of grace.  His theme “to which this book speaks is our ability—our calling—to be as outright in love of Lord and neighbor as Jesus has shown himself outright in becoming our Neighbor.  This means we must be able to sustain the language of endless obligation, an imaginative idiom in which we are only awkwardly fluent.”  What this means without the muddy language is that the change necessary to set Onesimus free is not a change in the slave, himself.  Burtchaell argues that the one who must change is Philemon, not Onesimus.  It is he who must see his slave as a Christian brother created in the image and likeness of God, the Imago Dei.  To change the mind of the oppressor, the slave owner, is far more challenging and necessary if the slave is ever to gain true freedom from his captivity.  It is a potent and logical argument.  One can issue words in a proclamation, but changing hearts and minds is much more difficult, especially when attitudes and behaviors have been entrenched in the culture for decades or even centuries.  Added to this challenge is the fact that Onesimus is charged with theft.  Truly, Philemon must not only reconsider how he views him, but he also must forgive him his transgression.

Burtchaell begins the book with a statement of Philemon’s problem.  He gives a brief biography of the parties involved and sketches out the cultural context.  He also details what Paul hoped to accomplish with his missive.  The basic premise is that if we are to follow Paul’s advice as Philemon must, it means changing the way we view the Other, the one who is not like us in appearance and is certainly not part of our class in society.  It is here that the book has much to offer.  Ours is a world of classes clashing violently at great human cost.  The violent actors dehumanize those they lash out against, and they refuse to see them as human beings, brothers and sisters not just from a religious standpoint but as human beings worthy of dignity and respect.

The main text of the book is divided into three sections:  A Distinctive Doctrine, A Distinctive Morality, and A Distinctive Worship.  Each section continues to develop this theme of a complete change in the slave owner, or person in power, that he or she may act in the name of God to see those perceived as less to be equals in the eyes of the Lord.  This message, although seemingly religious in nature, can be applied equally without bringing God into the situation.  If we believe in the sanctity of human life, Paul’s plea in the letter to treat people with respect and dignity, even when they wrong us or are not equal to us in class or economy, means changing the way we see all human beings.  We start from a base position of the person as a human being, valuable and sacred because of his or her humanity.  It is a powerful position and important in this age of often violent discrimination and human misery.

Like most theology books, I find Burtchaell’s writing style to be needlessly complicated and obtuse at times.  In examination of his sentences and syntax, I wonder if there is not a clearer, more concise way to make the case in support of his thesis.  The book is not for a general audience, and one of the surprises to me is that it was assigned in a high school religion class, even one occurring three decades ago.  Having taught senior students for many years, and now college students, I think Burtchaell’s writing would be difficult to understand and internalize for most of them.

However, the message is important and must be considered in light of the violence and oppression that occurs in our supposedly enlightened world.  One cannot legislate against oppression with words on a page stating the rights and freedoms of the oppressed.  One must change the minds of the oppressors to truly free the oppressed.  It is a logical thesis that must be accepted, even if the author has ended his career in disgrace.  In this case, the message is more important than the messenger.